Sharon Olds is one of the most prominent contemporary voices in American Literature. Her poem, “The Possessive,” revolves around the theme of severing relation between a mother and her adolescent daughter. In this poem, she explores the generation gap between the mother and her teenage daughter.
It shows the contemporary issue of the coming of age of a daughter and the mother’s unsuccessful attempt to win her back. Like most of her works, “The Possessive” also brings out ambiguity in its diction and style. “Sharon Olds convincingly, and with astonishing vigor, presents a world which, if not always hostile, is never clear about which face it will show her” (Olds par. 3). Thus, by using ambiguity, the poet narrates the confusion of the mother who is not able to relate to her daughter.
“Ambiguity is how literature contextualizes the questions it wants us to ask of it” (Pike et al. 21). Basically, all three types of ambiguity are expressed throughout the poem. Sharon Olds makes use of the literary device, ambiguity, to express the confusion, the mother (the protagonist of the poem) experiences in her relationship with her adolescent daughter. According to literary conventions, authors use the ambiguity of diction to express the confusion that arises in the way words are put together within a clause.
The poet uses this literary device to emphasize the complexity of the situation described in the poem. The poem begins with the phrase “My daughter.” ‘My’ is a possessive which instills the notion that the daughter is close to the mother. The mother considers her daughter as her sole property. But the next sentence which reads “as if I owned her – that girl with the hair wispy as a frayed bell pull” (Ault par. 2) creates confusion in the reader’s mind.
Here, the poet begins the description of her daughter using the possessive. But she is still confused whether she should call her ‘my daughter’. So she goes on stating her bewilderment in the very next sentence which turns out to be the exact contradiction of the phrase, ‘My Daughter’. In the aforementioned example, the poet uses the ambiguity of diction quite effectively. Writers from times immemorial have used this device.
The Great Bard, Shakespeare has also used this literary device abundantly in his plays. “The title of the country song “Heaven’s Just a Sin Away” is deliberately ambiguous. At a religious level, it means that committing a sin keeps us out of heaven, but at a physical level, it means that committing a sin (sex) will bring heaven (pleasure). Many of Hamlet’s statements to the King, to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and to other characters are deliberately ambiguous, to hide his real purpose from them” (Literary Terms par. 7).
The title of Sharon Olds’ poem is also quiet ambiguous. As the name suggests the poem is not about the deep relation between the mother and the daughter. It shows a sympathetic picture of the deteriorating relation between a mother and her adolescent daughter. The lack of rapport, which we fondly call the generation gap, is the antagonist in the poem. The situation is so tense that the poet has used the imagery of war to describe the severing relationship.
Through the use of ambiguity in the poem, “The Possessive,” the poet has succeeded in conveying the ambiguous relationship a mother shares with her daughter. Like the literary device, the relationship is also so complex that the mother’s bewilderment is beautifully depicted throughout the poem.
Ault, Heather. Causalities of a Haircut. Columbia College Chicago. 2012.
Literary Terms. Core Studies. 2009.
Olds, Sharon. Sharon Olds: Biography. Poetry Foundation. 1942.
Pike et al. Literature A World of Writing Stories, Poems, Plays and Essays. Amazon. 1998. Print.